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Thomas Swiss

On the term popular

by Thomas Swiss

Source: http://www.drake.edu/swiss/popularandbusiness.html[Offline, Jul 2004]


-"I do not get points for assigning a three-week long unit on elevator music."-

-Anahid Kassabian-


The term popular has a long, strange, and highly charged history. It modifies a stunning array of nouns, from uprising to hairstyle, from candidate to culture. In that last usage, popular culture, it has circulated in two related sets of debates that have significantly influenced popular music studies. First, it has figured in a theoretical dispute, described in this essay, as a response to the term "mass culture." Second, it continues to be a focal point for a set of institutional struggles, characterized by journalists as "the culture wars," aimed at securing opportunities for scholars to study mass-mediated culture within universities. Those struggles have now made it possible to teach and study the popular-popular television, popular literature, popular film, and, central to the subject of this volume, popular music. But what do we mean when we use the word "popular?"
This chapter examines how the term popular has been mobilized, by whom, and to what ends in popular music studies. I will argue that in the literature on pop music, the term has taken a "populist" turn, ignoring what I call ubiquitous musics-music in films, in stores, on the phone, in the office, on television, in audio books, and so on. These are the kinds of music that no one chooses for themselves but nevertheless wash our everyday lives with sound. While this is the music that we hear the most of per capita, it is not routinely included in popular music studies. I want to suggest that its absence has a lot to do with the way we define popular.


In his influential book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, British culture theorist Raymond Williams devotes two full pages to the term popular . There, he traces the term from its earliest uses in English in the fifteenth century in law and politics. During the first few centuries of its existence, popular was understood as a negative term, meaning "low," "base," "vulgar," "of the common people." By the late eighteenth century, Williams tells us, it began to mean "widespread," and, late last century, the more familiar positive meanings we associate with "popular" began to accrue. This history is important because the meaning of the term shifts from embracing the perspective of an elite class that looked down its collective nose at the common people to celebrating-and remaking-what those common people valued. Thus, over the course of its lifetime, the class allegiance of popular has shifted dramatically.


Yet despite this turnaround, when I was an undergraduate, we did not read popular late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Lord Peter Wimsey, much less Kinsey Milhone and her contemporary ilk. In none of my music classes did we study jazz or the Beatles, much less punk or reggae. Over the last fifteen years or so, however, that has begun to change. Students at the university where I teach can now study, for example, gothic novels, science-fiction film, and popular music. This shift is a result of theoretical engagements with the study of culture. I will survey some of these developments in what follows.

Since the Enlightenment, great works have been understood as vessels of universal Truth and Beauty. In other words, from this perspective, truth and beauty do not change over time, do not vary from culture to culture, and are contained within the masterpieces of culture. And these masterpieces are understood as the products of inspired genius-the lonely, often misunderstood artist whose unique, individual vision creates such Truth and Beauty. Think of the romantic image of Beethoven, for example.

But mechanical reproduction-photography and sound recording-challenged that understanding. Photographs, and, later, films and sound recordings created fissures in the notion of a sole artist, in the relationship between document or non-fiction and art, and in the value of a work of art. Walter Benjamin, in one of the most influential essays on culture of the twentieth century, argued that mechanical reproduction had forever broken what he called the "aura" of the great work of art. No longer could we stand in awe in front of the original, because there was no such meaningful object as an "original."

[...] http://www.drake.edu/swiss/popularandbusiness.html [Offline, Jul 2004]

Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (1999) - Bruce Horner, Thomas Swiss

Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (1999) - Bruce Horner, Thomas Swiss [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

About the Author
Bruce Horner has degrees in both music and English. His essays on song criticism have appeared in such journals as Mosaic, Writing on the Edge, and the Journal of Musicology. He is Associate Professor of English at Drake University, where he teaches courses on song criticism. Thomas Swiss has had essays published in Popular Music, Postmodern Culture, New England Review, and The New York Times Book Review. His most recent books are Rough Cut, a collection of poems (1997), and the co-edited Mapping the Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory (Blackwell, 1997). He teaches courses on music and contemporary culture at Drake University, where he is Center for the Humanities Professor. Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture presents eighteen original essays by leading scholars in the field of popular music studies. Each essay - drawing widely on work in feminist, postcolonial, and cultural studies and the disciplines of musicology and literary criticism - maps the competing perspectives on one of the key terms in ongoing debates on the meaning of popular music and culture, discusses the history of continuities and conflicts in its meaning, and presents the writer's own views on its meaning and how he or she has come to adopt such a position. These essays combine to form a valuable overview of the state of popular music discourse at the end of the twentieth century. They will prove invaluable both to those new to the study of popular music and those already well-versed in popular music and cultural studies. --Book Description via Amazon.com

The editors of this volume have isolated concepts and terms widely used in contemporary discourse on popular music and have assigned authors to an essay intended to explore the intellectual history of the term, examine a range of the term's uses in popular- music studies, and provide examples and case studies. Some essays-for example Paul Théberge's "Technology," Richard Middleton's "Form," David Sanjek's "Institutions," and Sara Cohen's "Scenes"-accomplish this admirably and more than make this volume worth reading. A few, however, hew a little too closely to the author's own research projects and may be of less general interest. Clearly indebted for inspiration to Raymond Williams's Keywords (CH, Jun'76; rev. ed., 1983) and less encyclopedic than Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies by Tim O'Sullivan et al. (2nd ed., 1994,), this collection attempts to introduce readers to a complex cultural studies terminology that is increasingly central to academic discourse in popular-music studies and more generally Important in the humanities and social sciences. The book features an excellent roster of authors and will make a valuable companion to popular-music studies, histories, and surveys. large collections at all levels. --G. Averill, New York University --Thomas Swiss via Amazon.com

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